DSO’s Classical Roots honors the flame of great African American music in Detroit


Regina Carter
Regina Carter

The true, beating heart of Detroit is defined not by its politics, or even by its fanatical devotion to its sports teams, but by the superior level of arts and culture this city has produced for generations. Detroit music is the primary component of that arts scene, and Detroit is the music capital of the world.
I defy anyone to dispute that, especially anyone who happened to attend the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s (DSO) 39th Annual Classical Roots Celebration last Friday night at Orchestra Hall. This was musical art produced at the highest level, which is something Detroit happens to be quite good at. For those who might be unaware, the Classical Roots website defines its objective as follows:
“The mission of the Classical Roots Celebration is to increase awareness of the contributions of African-American composers and musicians through performance and recordings, and to support increased opportunities for African-Americans in classical music through the DSO’s African-American Composer Residency, Emerging Composer Program, and African-American Fellowship. …Classical Roots honors African-American composers, musicians, and educators for lifetime achievement and raises funds to support the DSO’s African-American music and musician development programs.”
Last week’s program featured two true giants of the jazz world, both of whom were awarded for their lifetime musical achievements and contributions. Regina Carter, a Detroit native and Cass Tech graduate, is acknowledged as the premier jazz violinist of her generation and is a Macarthur Fellow. I first saw Regina nearly two decades ago when she was a member of the all-female jazz group Straight Ahead, and she was a monstrous talent then. Since that time, as her DSO guest soloist performance demonstrated last week (Carter performed David Schiff’s concerto 4 Sisters for Jazz Violin and Orchestra), she has become a near-flawless master of her instrument, possessing an uncanny combination of technical wizardry together with a depth of soul, spirit, and feel that enables her to make the instrument speak and command the emotions of an audience, not simply perform. You know you’re witnessing a master when you can’t quite discern where the physical embodiment of the artist ends and the instrument begins, because the two have become one.
DSO Jazz Creative Chair and trumpeter Terence Blanchard, a New Orleans native who has been here for more than five years and admits he has fallen in love with the city as his second home, was the second honoree. Blanchard was commissioned to write a piece for Orchestra and Choir commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Rebellion, which premiered at Classical Roots. Entitled Detroit 67, the piece was done in partnership with the citywide Detroit 67: Looking Back to Move Forward, described as “a multi-year community engagement project of the Detroit Historical Society that brings together diverse voices and communities around the effects of an historic crisis to find their place in the present and inspire the future.” With more than 31 albums under his belt, Blanchard is a five-time Grammy Award-winner and a Golden Globe nominee. He has composed scores for more than 50 films, including every Spike Lee film since 1991. I had a chance to speak with him briefly prior to the event.
How long have you been with the DSO?
I’ve been here about five-and-a-half years.
How has the experience been ?
Oh it’s been an amazing experience. We’ve been saying we’re trying to rebuild Detroit one concert at a time, and it’s been a beautiful experience watching the whole process grow. Watching the subscription base grow. Seeing how the patrons who’ve been coming to support us, they’ve just been extremely supportive of everything we’ve done.
So there’s been a strong response to the DSO jazz programs?
Oh definitely. Since I’ve been here we’ve doubled our subscription base.
How do you feel about the Classical Roots honor?
It’s a humbling thing. It’s truly humbling. First of all, it’s humbling to receive the award, but to be asked to write a piece [about] a piece of Detroit history that was so important for everyone here, it was a huge honor. I just hope that I did everybody proud.
What influenced you as you wrote the piece? What did you try and bring to it?
The first thing I tried to deal with was two main aspects of the event; the immediate aftermath of it, that eerie calm after something devastating and tragic has happened. The second movement is all about how far Detroit has come from there, the positive things that are going on and looking forward to the future. Because there has been a lot of amazing growth. I remember it wasn’t too long ago when the mayor was talking about just trying to keep the lights on. It seems like the city is so far away from that now. It’s a beautiful thing to witness. And to be inspired by.
You’re from New Orleans. How does the Detroit experience compare, musically and otherwise?
Musically, both cities have their own musical traditions that are very rich. And vast. But when it comes to dealing with tragedies like this, I think there are more similarities than anything. Because the [persistence] of folks to preserve the culture, to preserve the way of life, and not be deterred from that goal because of any natural disaster or any event created by man. It speaks to that eternal spirit that is stronger than anything. And when you see people come together and those spirits unite, it becomes a very powerful force to deal with.
Do you feel music and the arts will play a strong part in the healing of Detroit?
Oh man, without a doubt. I was just out last night at a club to hear some local musicians play, and it reminds me so much of New Orleans, because these guys are playing from their heart, man. And they’re doing it because it’s a healing process for them that they’re going through. And they’re helping other people heal too. And, you know, that’s a huge part of the Detroit culture. There is no development I can see without that musical culture being in existence.
What are your thoughts about the tradition of the Classical Roots celebration itself?
Well for me, it’s kind of like the bringing me back home kind of thing because I grew up hearing classical music, and operatic music in the church that I grew up in New Orleans. So I think it’s an amazing honor to be a part of this because it’s kind of bringing me back to my roots where I started. Again, being asked to write a piece for choir and orchestra, it’s a humbling thing. But it’s also an amazing opportunity for me given where I’ve come from. Because, man, you know writing this piece has brought me back to the origins of my musical identity as a kid growing up in the church hearing choral music as a kid.
When people leave the concert Friday night, what do you hope they will take away from the experience?
I think the thing that I hope happens is that people reflect on their own humanity. When you look at the immediate aftermath [the second movement of the piece], we’re gonna have some visuals that play behind the orchestra while the music is being performed. And when you look at those images, there’s some dark days in Detroit’s past, but there’s some beautiful days in the future, and the present. That only happens when people come together, and work together. And understand the frailties of humanity. And treat each other with respect and compassion. And I hope those are some of the things people walk away with after hearing the music.
So how much longer will you be with us in the city?
I’m not sure. It was a two-year appointment, but we’ve kinda, like, thrown that out the window. So, as long as they’ll have me, man, I’ll be here.


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